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The best advice I can give to anybody who loves photography is: Always have a camera with you.
It doesn't matter what gear you choose as your trusty companion, as long as it’s reliable. About three years ago, I was working as a salesman of hydraulic components for heavy machinery. I was traveling with a driver from the company I was working for, and we hit the road at dawn.
There’s something peaceful and enjoyable about driving in the early hours of the day, especially when heavy traffic is the norm on the roads you usually drive on. The sun had already risen, and the light was charming.
Suddenly, about an hour after our departure, I saw one of the most striking scenes I’ve ever seen. I wasn't carrying a camera with me that day, so I only have the memory of the scene. It’s imprinted in my mind so vividly that I could draw it; unfortunately, drawing isn't one of my gifts.
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I live in El Salvador, a Latin-American country, so the common cultural element you can find in most of our population is strong religious belief, especially Christianity.
The scene was the following: on one side of the highway, an old lady was kneeling on the ground, her arms lifted to the sky, her eyes closed. Her mouth was moving, so I figure she was praying out loud.
She was praying with a passion and faith so fervent I can only describe it as tangible in form. Two elements close to her shocked me: a couple of people were standing next to her, minding their own business, completely unmoved by the praying woman; the other was a fire (built by her, I guess). To her right, a fire made up of wood and trash; to her left, people minding their own business; in the center, the praying woman.
That's the best I can recall the scene thanks to my sloppy behavior of not carrying a camera with me at all times (like I should have). That moment in time changed my photography discipline forever. I remember talking with truckers about that particular scene at that peculiar spot on the highway, and to my surprise, they had seen the praying woman, too.
I’ve driven past that spot at least eighteen to twenty times since that first time, always hoping to see that scene again, or at least a similar one. It hasn’t happened yet. Still, I have faith that someday I'll see her, and I'll be prepared to capture the image I so deeply crave.
You need to have a trusty camera with you at all times. This is not a cliché for me. You don't need to go through a bitter experience like mine to include in your routine the companionship of a camera. Learn from my mistake!
I'm sharing this painful anecdote so you can learn and take advantage of my error. That image has been lingering in my mind since that day, and it hasn't left me alone. It’s a vivid image that haunts me, continually reminding me that having a camera with you is vitally important.
With street photography and social documentary, you can't control a lot of variables and, as romantic as it may sound, serendipity is a big one that you can't control at all. You’ll find plenty of tutorials and tips, and thousands of articles and cheat sheets, but I find that intimate and true words from any person are truly priceless. That’s what I’m trying to achieve with this anecdote of mine. The lesson I learned is something I’ll never forget.
I’ve read and heard a lot of people tell me to “always have a camera with you”, but until that day, I didn’t truly understand it. Don’t take that advice for granted and please don’t lower your guard. Always be vigilant and aware of your surroundings.
Happenings are just around the corner, so always be prepared. I try to turn off my camera with the same settings, always (1/125, f/5.6, ISO 100). I do this to gain precious time when I turn it on again. Regarding gear, the only thing I can tell you is to choose the most comfortable and inconspicuous camera you can afford.
Small, powerful cameras are the best way to go when thinking of your daily kit. You should have a trusty camera with you, and bond with it completely, so you can operate it unconsciously. I recommend small gear since carrying a chunky camera all day long is not comfortable or enjoyable.
The saddest part here is that I have heard this advice from friends and online websites. But I’m stubborn and didn’t pay adequate attention to the wise words I heard. Please, don't wait to be haunted by vivid memories of an image you left behind.